A guest review by Dr Francis Young
Following on from Michael Howard’s Children of Cain (2011), a history of traditional witchcraft in the UK (and, to some extent, in the USA), this volume is a collection of essays by experts in and practitioners of traditional craft. The volume is a valuable contribution insofar as it reveals the sheer diversity of those traditions that might be labelled ‘traditional witchcraft’. In contrast to Gardnerian Wiccans, practitioners of traditional witchcraft are reluctant to adopt a reductionist approach to traditional practices, and generally accept them whole and unreconstructed into the loose family of traditions that constitutes traditional witchcraft. Perhaps most notably, traditional witchcraft embraces traditions that draw on Christian imagery, words and symbolism and avoids the retrospective ‘paganisation’ of occult traditions of which Wiccans have sometimes been guilty.
The chapters in this collection range from highly abstract discourses on ‘theological’ themes within traditional witchcraft, such as Martin Duffy’s ‘The Cauldron of Pure Descent’ to practical descriptions of rituals (such as Levannah Morgan’s ‘Mirror, Moon and Tides’ and Radomir Ristic’s ‘Unchain the Devil!’). Somewhere in between are historical studies such as Manxwytch’s account of ‘The Traditional Witchcraft of Ellan Vannin’ and Gary St Michael Nottingham’s ‘Conjure Charms of the Welsh Marches’. Anything by the late Andrew Chumbley is always an intriguing read, and this volume includes two of his short pieces; Michael Howard’s reflections on the true meaning of necromancy, ‘Waking the Dead’, are likewise interesting. However, the contributions in this volume vary in quality, or at the very least in accessibility to someone without an insider’s spiritual interest in traditional craft. I enjoyed the book most when I felt that I was learning new information about ritual practices (Corey Thomas Hutcheson’s ‘Killing the Moon’, an insight into Appalachian witchcraft, is a good example). I enjoyed the book less when I felt I was reading about the internal theoretical speculations of the author.
It is clear that there is such a thing as traditional witchcraft, practised down to the present day in many countries, in the sense that there are people identified by themselves and others as witches whose practices are traditional rather than adopted from books. Whether this means that there is ‘a distinct body of archaic magical practices’ that can be named as traditional craft is another matter; such a phrase (which appears on the dust jacket) appears to assume that all practices of traditional witchcraft in Britain, Europe and areas settled by Europeans derive from a common ‘archaic’ source. The reader is left with the impression that traditional witchcraft has yet to emerge entirely from the shadow of the Wiccan religion, to the extent that practitioners of traditional witchcraft still tend to define themselves over against their Gardnerian counterparts. Practitioners generally reject the ‘Wiccan’ idea of witchcraft as a religion, but many of them are still engaged in a search for common doctrines amongst traditional witches (such as common conceptions of the Old One).
The idea that witchcraft is a universal of human experience without theoretical foundations – which is how anthropologists might see it, and how some traditional witches also treat it – is balanced by an apparent desire on the part of many traditional witches to ‘reverse engineer’ a complex mystical tradition lying behind traditional witchcraft practices. From an historical point of view, however, it is clear that in most cases belief in witchcraft is a profoundly unintellectual and unreflective business; witchcraft is lived and experienced rather than theorised about. This is one of the features that separates witchcraft from religion and, indeed, from ‘high’ traditions of ritual magic. The desire of practitioners of traditional witchcraft to ‘earth’ their rituals still has some way to go before it is realised, and the shadow cast by Margaret Murray is still a long one. It is easy to fall prey to the belief that ‘hidden knowledge’ or secret societies lay behind traditional witchcraft practices, because these ideas were structurally embedded in the British revival of witchcraft from the 1940s onwards. However, real practices of traditional witchcraft generally do not have these traits – there is knowledge, certainly, but it is experiential rather than theoretical. Practitioners and scholars of traditional witchcraft have much to contribute in attempting to rediscover the psychological reality of witchcraft practised in pre-industrial Europe – they are engaged in a psychological form of experimental archaeology, as it were – but if they are to succeed in this they must remain true to the historical record and not be seduced by intellectual speculation.
Overall, Hands of Apostasy is a valuable collection for anyone with an interest in traditional witchcraft or, indeed, in the psychology of witchcraft more generally.